UNCG Campus Weekly

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Thomas Berry and UNCG

Photo of Thomas Berry and Dr. Charlie HeadingtonThomas Berry was born 100 years ago. A chautauqua this week at UNCG will mark this centennial and consider and build on his research about ecology, universities and our world. The event’s talks will focus on such disparate topics as species extinction, indigenous knowledge, green campuses, the role of undergraduate education, and North Carolina sea turtles. Thomas Berry, with his emphasis on a sustainable earth/human relationship, likely would not have found these topics as disparate at all.

He was celebrated widely. He received eight honorary degrees and dozens of awards and honors. And Greensboro was where he grew up and where he lived his final years. He died in 2009 at age 94.

The scholar visited the UNCG campus numerous times:

He spoke at UNCG’s Warren Ashby Residential College on several occasions, according to UNCG Biology lecturer Ann Berry Somers, and he spoke at the UNCG Faculty Center.

UNCG’s All College Read in the early 1990s was Berry’s “The Dream of the Earth,” Somers recalls. He gave a seminar in UNCG’s Biology department in the early 2000s.

Ann Berry Somers (who is his niece) uses his work in Biology when discussing thinking as an ecological force. Catherine Matthews and Somers have used his essays on education in their think tank class, which is presenting a chautauqua later this week.

David McDuffie, a lecturer in Religious Studies at UNCG since 2010, uses Berry’s writings in his classes.

Berry is one of the most important figures in religious environmentalism, McDuffie says. “He’s a huge figure in the conversation.”

Berry saw people, animals and all the earth as a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects, McDuffie explains.

Humans tell stories and they create meaning from stories. The scientific narrative – how we comprehend the world’s history scientifically – does not need to be separated from religious ones, in Berry’s view. Valuing both narratives can lead to a greater appreciation of our natural environment.

We tend to separate things, he acknowledged. He wanted fewer barriers in academic disciplines, in aspects of our lives. And ecology is an ever-present primary focus.

McDuffie is working on his dissertation. “The following question orients my work,” he explains. “In a time of widespread ecological degradation, what is the potential for religion or the religious to offer a significant contribution toward the attainment of sustainable human cultures?” Berry’s scholarship is important to that work.

Dr. Charlie Headington has taught in Religious Studies and courses on sustainability in various programs throughout UNCG’s College of Arts and Sciences. He has used Berry’s books “The Great Work” and “Dream of the Earth” in his UNCG classes. “He spoke at one of my classes,” Headington recalls,” and we went down to my house (on Mendenhall) and garden and had a potluck with the students.”

Headington also worked at a garden with UNCG students as interns. “Berry came one day to recite his poems to a large group gathered in the garden.”

Headington reflected recently on Berry’s poetry. “Thomas told me that he enjoyed writing poetry more than anything else. And it shows. Students often told me that his poetic prose struck deeply as if he embedded earthy metaphors in their very being. Metaphors like reliving the moment when one first recognizes the beauty and wonder of nature, or how the universe ‘bends’ toward complexity, community and beauty.”

“Most poignant was Berry’s assertion that ‘we are the universe, thinking.’ My students felt that challenged them to think deeply and ethically.”

Learn more about the Spring Think Tank Chautauqua at UNCG at the site http://biology.uncg.edu/Chautauqua/Gen_Info.html. There is no admission charge.

By Mike Harris

Photo: Thomas Berry and Dr. Charlie Headington, first recipient of the Thomas Berry Environmental Educator Award, at the Kathleen Clay Edwards Library, Greensboro, 2005.